On a table in Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree’s office sits a copy of President Donald Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal. Ordered from Amazon, the sheriff’s copy has not been read. Murphree admits he only bought it because it was in political vogue while Trump ascended to power in 2016.
At least for now, the book is a decoration, appropriate for an office garnished with Texas Rangers baseball collectibles, encased AR-15s and other long guns, old badges and photos and quotes attributed to Ronald Reagan, the original “law and order” president to whom Murphree credits for first interesting him in American politics.
The Hollywood actor turned California governor turned 40th president of the United States caught Murphree’s attention all the way from the far-West Texas town of Plains during the 1980s, when the sheriff was finishing high school and launching into his law enforcement career.
Reagan’s use of TV to spread his conservative ideas across the country — even to the more rural parts of Texas — drew Murphree deep into conservative politics. Over the course of Murphree’s career, that mainstream conservatism has taken shape as a dimension in the sheriff’s daily life.
“I’ve learned the hard way that when you say something, it’s there forever,” Murphree said. “Say what you mean instead of throwing things out there.”
Some of Murphree’s personal Facebook posts have gone viral. There was that one time in 2016, when he wrote that he’d assault a transgender woman if one entered the same bathroom as his daughter; and in 2017, when after terrorists bombed a stadium in Manchester, England, Murphree wrote, “while you are distracted by the media and the crying of the left, Islamic Jihadist[s] are among us and want to kill you.” And there was the appearance he made on the National Rifle Association’s video streaming channel on which after a May 2018 school shooting he said, “It’s going to happen again.”
“Why some of that has been picked up, and some of it has gone national, I don’t have any idea,” Murphree said. “I’m not looking to be the next Sheriff [David] Clarke or anything like that.”
His post about the Manchester bombing earned him an invitation to appear on Fox Business Network.
After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Florida in February, Murphree sent an internal memo to staff at Denton County, saying, “We do not stage and wait for SWAT, we do not take cover in a parking lot, and we do not wait for any other agency,” garnering his second invitation from Fox (this time from Fox News). His third, and perhaps most political appearance, came during the U.S. Senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke (it’s “Robert” O’Rourke, if you’re talking to the sheriff).
O’Rourke said in September before students at the historically black Prairie View A&M that police officers in this country are “the new Jim Crow.” Almost instinctively, Fox invited Murphree to go live and deliver his reaction to its conservative viewers. The reaction was later circulated in the form of a Cruz campaign advertisement.
“You know, there has been a war on police officers for the last several years,” Murphree said on Fox News, redistributed in the ad. “[O’Rourke’s] rhetoric is divisive, it’s insulting and most of all it’s dangerous.”
Murphree, in an interview with the Denton Record-Chronicle, said he didn’t know his comments would be made into an ad for Cruz. But he did give the campaign his blessing when Cruz officials asked him to include the snippet in their ad. He’s a Cruz guy through and through, he says. And he saw O’Rourke as more opportunistic than genuine, more gamesman than truth teller.
“It was what he said, but it was also where he said it,” Murphree said, reflecting on the whole episode. “He’s looking at an audience full of young African-American students who are gonna set the world on fire, but he makes this comment. Instead of trying to make things better, for political gain, he hurt things.”
Murphree said he learned how to look beyond political messaging while he was protecting George W. Bush in his first presidential campaign. A Texas Ranger, Murphree was assigned to Bush’s security detail. He traveled with him, overhearing the exchanges between Bush and powerful people like Condoleezza Rice and Karl Rove. He listened to the same stump speeches every day. He caught on to the talking points that roused audiences and the ones that flopped.
“That really opened my eyes to the process and how it works and all of the things that go on in the background,” Murphree said.
He’s never been asked by CNN or MSNBC to give his opinions on TV, Murphree said. But if that time ever comes, he said he’d “absolutely” accept the invitation.
“I’m not going to change the way I feel and change the way I talk about things because of who the audience is,” he said.
First elected in 2016, Murphree came to office in Denton County in a vacuum created in the days after the Dallas Observer exposed former Sheriff Will Travis of having an affair with a high school-aged girl during the 1990s. Support for the sheriff slipped away, and Murphree, who has always said he was asked to run by people within the sheriff’s office, rose to power. Murphree jumped feet first into one of the most politically active counties in Texas.
“Denton County, especially the people involved in the party, they vote on your opinion of national things,” Murphree said, offering an explanation as to why he shares his opinion so fervently.
He goes on TV and writes controversial social media posts simply because he can and because he has to remain politically relevant.
“I wish every person that’s in an elected office would let people know what they feel about things,” he said.
Frank Dixon, the new Denton police chief, has on multiple occasions ducked from giving his personal opinions on things, saying it would not benefit his officers or the public they serve. Murphree is not of that mindset.
“I just don’t believe that,” he said. “I believe we live in a free country, I believe in the freedom of speech.”
And at a time when Trump has promised a return to “law and order,” which has inspired even some Reagan-era Republicans like Murphree to support him, Murphree recognizes the power that comes with a sheriff going on TV news media to support conservative candidates.
“Whether it influences the election or not, I don’t know,” he said in an interview a week before Tuesday’s election. “In really close elections, like the one between Ted Cruz and O’Rourke right now, I think it can make a difference. And I hope it does.”